On Thursday, Cracker Barrel Old Country Store joined the growing list of food companies that want their pork supplies to come from systems that do not use gestation-sow stalls. The restaurant chain announced that it will begin formulating plans to source its pork from such operations.

 “We’re seeing an evolution in Americans’ awareness and attitudes regarding meat produced with higher animal welfare in mind,” says Vance Fouraker, Cracker Barrel’s vice president of strategic sourcing. “We recognize that gestation crates may not be the best method to meet higher animal welfare goals and are committed to evolving to sustainable alternatives.”

The news release announcing Cracker Barrel’s move came from the Lebanon, Tenn.-based chain and the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS).

“We are grateful to Cracker Barrel for putting a stake in the ground when it comes to the extreme confinement of sows in gestation crates,” says Wayne Pacelle, HSUS president and chief executive officer. “Americans care about how farm animals are treated, and gestation crate confinement is simply out-of-step with those values.”

But just last week, at World Pork Expo (WPX), pork producers and their associations expressed concern about the impact of such mandates not just on pork producers, but also consumers. A transition from gestation-sow stalls to group housing will involve significant costs, potential reduction of pork supplies and result in further consolidation. Long-term, consumers will pay more for pork, National Pork Producers Council (NPPC) officials contend.

According to a survey released by NPPC and the University of Missouri, 17 percent of pregnant sows spend some time in an open-pen system. “This does not mean that 17 percent of our production is non-stall gestation,” clarifies Dallas Hockman, NPPC’s vice president of industry relations. HSUS and food companies have tended to cite 30 percent as the margin. (Click here for more survey details.)

On the farm, the housing conversion is estimated to cost $200 to $300 per sow space. From a lender’s perspective, that money will have to come from producers’ cash, says Mark Greenwood, Vice President of Agri-Business Capital, Mankato, Minn. He projects that existing units will have to downsize by 10 percent to 20 percent to accommodate the extra building space for the housing transition. Some producers will exist the industry versus add more to their debt load. Meanwhile the production impact throughout a system could total a 15 percent to 30 percent reduction.  

“There is a serious question about being able to deliver a segmented product,” Hockman points out. “You have to have a system in place to be able to track the product.” That’s a particular challenge for processors of products such as sausage and luncheon meats. Establishing a system takes time and investment throughout the food chain.

What’s more, Hockman argues, pork producers and processors have not been involved in the dialogue or the decision making process. “This is a complex issue and we deserve to be part of the discussion,” he says. “We’ve not seen a serious commitment to address the additional costs these decisions will impose on producers, packers/processors, distribution, at the meat case and the additional price consumers will pay.”    

According to Cracker Barrel’s Fouraker, “Cracker Barrel hopes that all of our pork suppliers will share in our vision for a gestation crate-free future, and we’re excited to work with them to achieve this goal.”

Established in 1969, Cracker Barrel operates 615 company-owned locations in 42 states. Its trademark is “home-style comfort food” and locations are often near mid-size cities near rural areas and off Interstates. There is a distinct “country” vibe the venues. As the company’s website points out, the restaurants offer “quality breakfast, lunch and dinner menus featuring home-style comfort foods and a retail store that offers a wide selection of quality gifts, music and packaged foods.”

The website also reports that “per unit averages” total 6,700 guests per week and $4.06 million in annual sales

Other notable food companies that have made the non-gestation-stall mandate include: McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s, Denny’s, Kroger and Safeway. Increasingly 2017 is the year many are citing as a deadline.